The Elementals: Earth

Vortex Repertory Company's ritualistic celebration of earth may make you want to dig your toes into the dirt

Can you dig it?: Melissa Vogt-Patterson in the earth in <i>Earth</i>
Can you dig it?: Melissa Vogt-Patterson in the earth in Earth (Photo courtesy of Errich Petersen)

The Elementals: Earth

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 478-5282
www.vortexrep.org
Through April 20
Running time: 1 hr., 20 min.

On entering the stage space for Earth, an ensemble member asks if you'd like to shed your shoes before heading to your seat. It's a canny, even wise invitation, since you have to cross the playing area, which is covered with 17 tons of dirt, and in most folks the first touch of flesh on sod will trigger a Proustian rush of memories: walking barefoot on unpaved roads or freshly plowed fields, soles sinking into a flower bed's soft soil, toes burrowing into the beach's wet sand. Establishing that rich sensory connection to earth – grounding us to the ground, if you will – makes the elemental celebration to come feel more personal and gives you a stake in the earth's fate.

Not having seen the previous works in Vortex Repertory Company's The Elementals series – Air, Fire, and Water – I can't say how Earth compares in form or execution, but it certainly resembles other works of ritual theatre mounted by Vortex: The stage functions as a sacred arena in which the ensemble members, representing figures of myth or legend, gather to pay tribute to a mythic object or persona in songs, dances, and texts. This is one that progresses thematically rather than narratively, with the celebration moving from the conceptual – earth as all other elements: as wave, as flame, as breeze – to the material – earth as the place our fruit comes out of and our dead go into. At the outset, cast members Melissa Vogt-Patterson, Anderson Dear, and Mindy Rast-Keenan are literally buried to the waist, but all the performers are immersed in the material here. They have dug up quotations about earth from two dozen sources – William Blake to Black Elk, Carl Sagan to Rumi – and deliver them with the fervor that we've come to expect from such Vortex productions.

As in a religious service, the proceedings can at times feel lacking in drama and repetitive – we see a lot of hands scooping up earth and dropping it back down – but Vortex Artistic Director and Earth Mother Bonnie Cullum keeps the work moving steadily forward and even injects some storytelling energy into the work via a retelling of the myth of Iduna, the Norse goddess whose apples kept the gods young. The score by Chad Salvata and other composers helps propel the work as well, especially when driven by Dear's full-throated vocals and a cappella harmonies, reminiscent of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Chris Humphrey even provides an anthem to which the audience is urged to rise and sing. It's rousing enough that you may find yourself wanting to defend and preserve the Earth – or at least dig your toes into it a little on your way out of the theatre.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Elementals: Earth, Austin theatre, Vortex Repertory Company, Bonnie Cullum, Chad Salvata, Melissa Vogt-Patterson, Chris Humphreys, Anderson Dear, Mindy Rast

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